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At the World’s Toughest Race Does It Pay To Be Young or Experienced?

The story at this year’s 32-mile Molokai2Oahu Paddleboard World Championships won't be the sharks, massive ocean swells, or roaring winds. It’s all about two of the race favorites, Dave Kalama and Kai Lenny.

Ironically, Kalama, who has crossed the Kaiwi Channel more than 30 times and is 28-years older than Lenny, has taught his younger competitor almost everything he knows about the sport.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/dave-kalama-backside-surfing_fe.jpg","caption":"Dave Kalama is no stranger to the Molokai2Oahu. Here he is going backside on a wave during the 2012 race."}%}

Will it take 49-year-old Kalama’s strength, wisdom, and mental toughness or 21-year-old Lenny’s youth, agility, and endurance? Or will two-time champ Connor Baxter or Aussie Travis Grant blow them both out of the water? Stephanie Pearson checks in with the legendary waterman and the rising star before they take the battle to the waves on July 27.

OUTSIDE: What makes this race so much more difficult than every other standup paddling race? 
KALAMA: It’s a 32-mile race, but because of the current it paddles at more like a 45-mile race. The closer to Oahu you get the stronger the current gets and the last mile and half is directly into the wind, which averages 15 to 25 knots. As for the sharks, well, yeah they are out there and I have seen one or two, but you’re so tired and fatigued and trying to focus on what you’re doing that you don’t have time to think about them. The mental battle is what matters. It is a constant battle to not give up.

LENNY: Yeah, I mean it’s absolutely insane. The race is more than just paddling a normal course. It’s so mentally challenging you tend to have to lay down the line and push yourself. By being the best you can be is how you win. It’s not so much that you beat the other guy. I always joke that it’s the first 30 miles that are easy and the last two that will kill you. At 30 miles I feel fine, but the last two I really have to put everything into it because my mind is telling me to stop and when it turns straight upwind I have to dig into my soul.

Standup paddling is unique in that a 49-year-old and a 21-year-old can have an equal chance of winning the World Championship. Why is that?
KALAMA: In almost every other sport you would be laughed at if you thought you could be competitive at 49. But standup paddling is not just purely about physical fitness and is a relatively low impact sport where agility isn’t as critical. It’s more about endurance and emotion—the psychological side of it. There’s so much to it, being able to read the ocean, maximize every glide, make educated guesses on what’s going to happen. If you took marathon running and chess and threw it together, that’s a little bit what it’s like. You have to have the endurance to even get in the game, then it’s a giant chess match the whole way across, based on moves you think your competitor is going to do, and you have to outguess and outwork your competitor.

LENNY: Dave has all this ocean knowledge that allows him to work less, but paddle smarter, and that’s what makes him really fast. He’s been reading the water close to 50 years and I haven’t been around that long. I have the endurance and the speed, but I lack a lot more in ocean knowledge. I also have long arms and can keep a little bigger stroke, which can add up to a mile.

So how do you train for this keeping in mind your respective ages, strengths, and weaknesses?
KALAMA: I really like to do long paddles in my training because, for me, so much of it is the mental aspect. It’s a constant mental battle with yourself to just keep going. Then it’s pushing and maximizing every glide and paying attention to what your competitors are doing without getting too focused on them because you gotta stay focused on yourself. A lot of times I can catch those really big bumps that if those guys did catch it may overtax them. I’m trying to catch bumps anywhere from six inches to eight feet. I have a saying: “The little ones pay the bills, the big for the thrills.” The little ones keep you moving and the big ones are a lot of fun, but they take a lot of energy and are hard to catch, so you can’t count on them. A lot of people think “Ah, Dave you can do it man, you’re so solid you can put so many miles in.” The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t get easier, I’m just used to not quitting.

LENNY: I’ve been traveling so much and doing so many other races that I haven’t been able to train quite as much specifically for this one. At a minimum you want to do two months of training. There’s no other race like it. It’s the hardest race I do all year. It may not be the longest, but it’s definitely the gnarliest. It’s all included: the channels, chop , churn, swells constantly changing, going upwind at times, not only that, but you’re racing, going against guys that want to win as badly as you so that pushes you to go 100 percent for 4.5 hours.

How will you stay mentally focused at mile 27?
KALAMA: I have to listen to music. The theme to Rocky always gets me pumped up.

LENNY: All I can think about is focusing on each stroke, each swell, and focusing on not letting my mind wander. I don’t listen to music, but I have a song playing in my head. There’s this song called “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Lorde. That song is cool, it gets you pumped. I love rap but over 4.5 hours it gets too much.

What’s your secret to beating each other?
KALAMA: There’s no real secret to beating Kai or Connor Baxter. You just have to be fast. You have to manage your fluids, your calories, your energy output, and you gotta glide fast. If you do all those things really well you give you yourself a chance. I hope Kai and Connor race each other and I can do my own thing and see if that plays out because I’m not sure if I can go head to head with them.

LENNY: I would rather put all my energy on myself to do well. Kelly Slater can look at someone and they break. It’s super gnarly. That works for other people, but I would rather do my own thing, and put all my energy into what I need to do. On the beach we’re really good friends, but once we get on the water, it’s not vicious, but it’s intense. Everyone’s going to do everything in his power to beat the other guy. Then when we get back on the beach we’re all friends again. If you get smoked, you laugh it off. That’s why standup is the best sport—there aren’t as many egos in it yet. I hope it doesn’t ever get to the point where people become more selfish.

What have you taught each other about stand up paddling?
KALAMA: When Kai started to get really good at wave riding it definitely inspired and motivated me to push myself to get better at wave riding, for sure.

LENNY: I remember Dave always told me, ‘Kai, you want to work as little as possible and paddle as smart as you can.’ That’s something I’m going to take to heart. When the going gets tough you tend to want to do 100 percent. Also huge is taking the right line and having patience. If I end up being able to beat Dave, he’s going to know it was all him giving me the tips to do it. I’m surprised he ever wanted to be my mentor or train me, because he basically has been helping me get better and pushed myself to be able to beat him. But he tells me that he hasn’t given me all his secrets and I believe him.

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A Shrine to Luxury Adventure

In Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture, south of Osaka, sits the Kumano Kodo, a series of ancient pilgrimage routes that wind through the misty, cedar-filled Kii Mountain Range. Though popular with the Japanese, the 1,000-plus-year-old trail system doesn’t see many outsiders, which is a shame given the brain-meltingly beautiful sites along the way—ornate Shinto shrines, waterfalls, and centuries-old stone staircases, chief among them.

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Start your spiritual quest (or really pretty hike, depending on how you view it) on the Nakahechi, a 25-mile UNESCO World Heritage–certified stretch of the Kumano that kicks off at the trailhead near the Takijiri-oji Buddhist shrine.

From here, you’ll hike two hours to Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge, a peaceful spot to spend a day or two before really digging into the trek. Built atop a wildflower-covered ridge in the village of Takahara, the lodge boasts Japanese- and American-style guest rooms, indoor and outdoor onsens (hot-spring baths), and Wakayama dinners made with ingredients from the on-site organic garden.

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Take your meals—think vegetable hot pots and tuna sashimi—on the outdoor patio overlooking mountains and terraced farm fields. Or sit inside in the handsome dining room, built with local hardwoods. After dinner, walk the grounds while trying to wrap your head around this primeval corner of the world.

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The details: Rooms range from 11,000 yen (approximately $108) to 12,800 yen ($125) per night, depending on whether you want meals included (pro tip: you do).

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The Tour de France for Women

Arguably the most marquee event in women’s cycling is taking place this weekend, and the majority of people probably don’t even know about it. On Sunday, after a 16-year hiatus, female riders will once again share in the prestige of the Tour de France at a one-day race called La Course.

Before the Tour steams into Paris for its concluding drag race down the Champs Élysées, some of the top women’s teams in the world will line up for a criterium on those same roads. The racers will complete 13 laps on the same cobbled circuit that the men finish on, for a total of 90 kilometers.

The race is the brainchild of journalist–turned–road-racer Kathryn Bertine, along with two of the world’s top female racers, Emma Pooley and Marianne Vos. The group, which has continued to add big names to its ranks as the movement progressed, has been working on making La Course happen since 2012.

Given cycling’s staid and traditional outlook, it wasn’t easy. It took a petition, which garnered more than 100,000 signatures, to get the attention of ASO, the parent company of the Tour de France.  

In some ways, La Course is a milestone—the first time that women have competed on the same stage as men. Using the same infrastructure and media as the Tour’s final stage, it will put women’s racing in front of one of its biggest-ever audiences short of the Olympics. Prize money for the race is €22,500, the same amount that the men earn for winning a stage at the Tour. It will be broadcast live, even here in the U.S., where any cycling coverage—male or female—is rare.  

On the other hand, the event also reinforces the lack of parity between men’s and women’s cycling. Compared to the 21-day, 2,300-mile extravaganza of the Tour, La Course is hardly a drop in the bucket.

And the course itself isn’t even as long as the men’s day, which is considered by most the easiest stage in the Tour. And it’s being held five full hours before the Tour stage, long before the men even take their start, meaning that the crowds and visibility will inevitably be much lower than they otherwise could have been. Even the TV representation is questionable. In three weeks of watching the Tour, we’ve yet to see La Course promoted.

This is hardly the first time that women’s cycling has gotten short shrift. Previous attempts at a women’s edition of the Tour, then known as La Grand Boucle Féminine, suffered from underfunding, poor organization, and a lack of media coverage and support, which eventually lead to the event’s demise. There was the Exergy Tour, which was billed as the great hope for women’s cycling in the U.S. when it launched in 2012, but failed even before its second year after the sponsor pulled out. And of course there were the infamous comments of Pat McQuaid just two years ago, when he was president of the UCI, that he didn’t believe that women’s cycling was worthy of a minimum wage. 

The fact is, while many have called La Course an equalizer for women’s cycling, it is, at best, a baby step. A few months ago, I was talking about to Evelyn Stevens, one of the top women’s US road racers with Specialized Lululemon and I sensed the same frustration.

Stevens was careful to say that she’s excited about the event and grateful for the exposure and chance. But there was also the underlying frustration that where ASO could throw its might behind women’s cycling and really help to promote it, they have created what’s little more than a parade.

Don’t get us wrong: We’re thrilled to see the best women on the planet throw down on the world’s biggest stage, even if it is hours before the main event. With the likes of Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley, Georgia Bronzini, and Elisa Longo Borghini, the race is sure to be every bit as exciting as the men’s event—perhaps moreso given how many of the favorites have been struck down from this year’s Tour. You can bet we’ll be tuning in.

We just hope that La Course will prove to be a stepping stone to bigger things, as Vos says it should be, and not just another high-profile misfire.

One day, we hope that little girls everywhere might know the phrase, “Vive le Tour Féminin!”

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The Same River Twice

Every family has a favorite place. One of ours is the Rio Chama, a 31-mile stretch of wilderness whitewater that slices through the red-rock canyons of northern New Mexico. I've rafted, kayaked, or otherwise floated the Chama nearly every summer since I moved to Santa Fe 19 years ago, for what was supposed to be a three-month internship. My husband and I have camped and run and biked along the river, and when our daughters were born, we started bringing them, too.

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It's not hard to love the Rio Chama. Its banks are lined with 100-foot-tall ponderosas, peachy cliffs that Georgia O'Keefe used to paint, and striated, 700-foot sandstone walls with the faintest outlines of arches beginning to form. Nearly 25 miles have been designated a Wild & Scenic River, flowing through Class II-III rapids and a roadless wilderness that's one of the few places left in the country where you're guaranteed not to get cell service. Floating the canyon—for one day or three—is the ultimate mental reset.

This year, we scored a permit to raft the Chama for three days in the end of May. The first call we made was to our boating friends from Durango, Rob and Amy, and their two adolescent kids. They'd accompanied us on our first multiday float with our then 10-month-old daughter, on the remote San Juan River, in southern Utah, reassuring us the whole way that we weren't insane for bringing an infant. On that trip, they became our de facto family rafting mentors, and we've done a trip with them, sometimes two, nearly every year since.

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Amy and their son, Henry, couldn't come, but Rob and his 11-year-old daughter, Ainsley, and her 10-year-old cousin, Max jumped at the chance to raft the Chama for the first time. They invited their friend Kevin, and his four-year-old-daughter, Sage, whom we'd met two years ago on the San Juan with Rob. From Santa Fe, we enlisted our friend Win, a Grand Canyon river guide who would have brought his wife and their two-year-old daughter if they hadn't been out of town.

Our group of ten launched from just below El Vado Dam, almost exactly a year to the date that Steve and I and the girls set off last year. After late-spring snow, it felt like the first real weekend of summer, and we drifted downstream, through the first small riffles and into the wilder, deeper canyon. So much was the same, and yet even more was different. We had Pete now, our black Lab puppy, who like our daughters, was making his maiden raft voyage at ten months old. Our three-year-old, Maisy, had broken her foot jumping off a wall a month ago and was wearing a walking cast that seemed destined to be destroyed by three days of mud and river water.

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Like children, rivers mark time. No matter how familiar and dear to us they may be, they are constantly in flux, never the same from one week to the next. River levels rise and fall, revealing sand bar camps at low water and then reclaiming them at high water, swollen by spring runoff or summer flash floods. Side canyons disgorge boulders, altering rapids, making them bigger or smaller or more technical or less, and sometimes completely unrecognizable. Logs and branches sail downstream on the current, forming snags that catch more flotsam, stray fishing bobbers and tangled tree stumps, soggy old baseball caps. Someone's wrapped a canoe around a rock in the middle of a long and bony Class III rapid; it will stay there until it gets pushed off or its owner comes to claim it.

Children on river trips only underscore the water's natural fluctuations. They are a month older, or a year older. They have a broken foot. They've started reading. They are stronger swimmers. They can get by, but barely, without their afternoon nap. They've figured out how to reach the zippers on the tent and crawl out on their own. They demand S'Mores, not bottles, before bed. They jump from one raft to another, ride with the big kids in the inflatable kayaks, and are strong enough to paddle the SUP standing up through tiny wave trains. 

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At the first night's camp—by coincidence, the same wedge of beach on a wide bend where we camped last year—we set up our chairs in the sand and watched the stars come out. I marveled about how much had changed since our first family river trip. Putting Pippa to bed in a Pack 'n Play in the tent, swaddled in a sleep sack and soothed by pacifiers—a small army of them, invariably sandy and all too often misplaced. Nursing her in the middle of the night, hoping her hungry bleats wouldn't wake the whole camp. The season when we wedged not one, but two portable cribs into our massive two-room tent, pacing outside in the fading light to make sure all was quiet. The fall trip on the San Juan when 14-month-old Maisy weaned herself, too busy to bother with the distraction of nursing and unimpressed with breast milk that tasted suspiciously like muddy desert river water. And now this trip, when both girls lie side by side in sleeping bags in their own tent (attached to ours), one reading to the other until, exhausted, there's only silence.

In a good summer, we might take three or, if we're lucky, four river trips. That's maybe 12 nights sleeping outside under gnarled old junipers, among the sage, sheltered beneath canyon walls, deep in the backcountry. In the scheme of things, this is not much time. You could argue, and people have, that young children and babies, as ours were when we began, don't belong in the backcountry and are too young to appreciate wilderness rivers; that it's selfish to bring them, that they won't remember the few days they spent bobbing through gentle rapids, held in arms, sleeping against our chests, soft toddler arms taking a turn at the oars. That the risks far outweigh the benefits of those few days.

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But as we sat under layers and layers of stars, and the thinnest wisp a moon hung above the canyon rim, with Saturn beaming beside it, I knew these trips, those few fleeting days, add up to so much more. Our girls are growing up on the river. With each year, the Chama and the San Juan, the Green and the Rio Grande, are becoming familiar to them, known and beloved, like the rafting friends we see year after year. The rivers—like all favorite places and family traditions—hold our memories and mark our milestones. They release us from the busy clutches of routine life, the overstimulation, the schedules, the screens, and offer us deep comfort within ourselves and the world.

Our days on the Rio Chama blended one to the next as the river miles slid by. Maisy crawled barefoot in the mud at the edge of the water, rafted Class III Aragon for the first time, and managed not to trash her boot cast after all. We inched past a rattlesnake, its tail going clackety-clack from its safe haven under a rock ledge, and hiked a slot canyon, the youngest among us clamoring up the pour-overs. And Pete, after desperately flinging himself from the raft into the very first rapid and coming up bobbing like a little black mink, learned to sit stoically at Steve's feet while he rowed. He's becoming a river dog now. 

We can boat the same backyard river twice, three times, a dozen or more, and it will never get old. No two trips on the Rio Chama will ever be the same, because the river is always changing, just as we are. This is why we keep going back—why wilderness will always be a constant in our life—to be reminded that nothing stays at it is, the beautiful impermanence of it all, and to be glad for what we have right now.

No, 12 days is not nearly enough.

Three Perfect Family "Lightwater" Raft Trips

Rio Chama, New Mexico
Do-it-yourself with a lottery permit from the BLM, or hook up with Los Rios Riverrunners, which provides luxury walled safari tents for the two-night, three-day Class III trip.

San Juan River, Four Corners
Like the Rio Chama, the 84-mile stretch of San Juan from Bluff to Clay Hills requires a private-boater permit. Class II-III rapids make this a fun, splashy river for families. Break the distance into the Upper or Lower trips, or float the entire length in seven days. O.A.R.S and Wild River Expeditions offer family trips.

Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons, Green River, Utah
There's not a single rapid in 100 river miles between Ruby Ranch, through Canyonlands National Park, to the confluence with the Colorado River, making this the most mellow of family flat-water floats. As on other desert rivers, summer heat can be intense. DIY in rental canoes or rafts (permits required through Canyonlands or contact Tex's Riverways for guided trips. 

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